The Mind of a Thief

This article refers to The Mind of a Thief  (book) written by Patti Miller. It focuses specifically on the relationship between the text and the context Identity and Belonging.

The following is the transcript of a video to be released soon. Watch this space!


Today we’re discussing The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller in relation to Identity and Belonging. If this isn’t one of your texts, or you haven’t watched our video on Identity and Belonging yet – stop! – go watch that first and come back.

There are four possible texts you could be studying for Identity and Belonging, of which this is one. Make sure you’re not watching videos for texts you’re not studying.

Alright- on to The Mind of a Thief, which I’ll just call “Thief” or “the book” from now on.

This memoir-style novel is pervaded by the ideas of identity and belonging as she attempts to examine not only her own history, but that of her community and Australia as a whole. Much of the novel focusses on Australian Indigenous heritage and how this is influenced by relationship with land and oral storytelling.

Miller’s style

  • Narration style: the novel is narrated in first-person which allows the reader to go on a journey with Miller. This can be seen at the very opening of the novel when Miller relays her experience: “‘D’ya have any blackfella in ya?’ The skinny woman across the room looked directly at me.”
  • Personal versus historical: Miller blends together these two seemingly incongruous styles throughout the novel. This is emphasised through the weaving of historical and legal stories bound together in a shared focus on Miller’s heritage.
  • Non-linear timeframe: the novel weaves past and present narratives without moving in a forward in a strictly chronological sense. Instead, it jumps forward and backward in time using memories and historical accounts, framed by the event that prompted Miller to look into her heritage.
  • Dialogue: dialogue is written the way it is said, including colloquialisms and contractions. This gives a certain “realness” to the story; it is almost as if the reader can hear the true voices of the people who Miller interviews.

How identity is formed

The opening chapter of Thief sees the narrator consider if her identity would change with the knowledge that she has Aboriginal heritage. In doing so, she raises several considerations about the factors that influence a person’s sense of self. Some of the important considerations within the book which contribute to an individual’s sense of self include physical appearance, upbringing, gender, age and race.

  • Physical appearance: Miller identifies that she’s “as white as they come” when confronted with the possibility that she has a family connection with the Aboriginal woman she is speaking to. Her understanding of self has clearly been shaped by the firm belief that she was, as she later describes herself, a thief of Aboriginal lands. At the very least, her appearance and way of speaking creates an automatic disconnect with the women she is speaking with at the meeting.
  • Upbringing: Throughout the narrative, Miller weaves in stories from her childhood, demonstrating that they have had a profound influence on the person she is today. In particular, she looks to her understanding of Aboriginal people as a child to make sense of her reaction to her discovery that she may have a shared history with the Wiradjuri community.
  • Gender: Miller’s exploration of her own gendered roles, and those of the women around her as wives and mothers raises questions of the influence that gender plays on one’s identity.
  • Age and maturity: the point in time from which Miller is writing becomes an increasingly central focus throughout the memoir because she’s shown to be going through a period of change and readjustment, in turn influencing her sense of self.
  • Race: given the novel’s focus on aboriginality and the history of Australia, race plays a significant role, influencing a character’s sense of self. Race is explored not only in relation to what a character looks like, but the ancestry of that character as well. For the individuals who identify as Aboriginal, this connection is not based on appearance but a deeply personal ongoing connection to the landscape and their heritage.

How a sense of identity changes over time

The very first few pages of the novel opens the question of how identity can be affected by new knowledge: specifically, that Miller is affected by the knowledge that she may have Aboriginal heritage. This reflects that identity is not just influenced by the groups that we belong to and our upbringing, but our ancestry and understanding of culture as well.

In addition to this, the novel’s movement back and forth through time allows Miller to depict the ways that her identity (and the identities of those around her) have shifted with age and new experiences.

The ways in which Thief comments on the importance of a sense of belonging

The novel focusses intensely on this theme, posing the question: what does it mean to be Australian given that Australia is stolen land? Miller explores not only her own sense of Australia, but the cultural environment of this country through historical and metaphorical stories as well.

The notion of belonging being important is not explored exclusively in relation to white Australians within Miller’s text. Through interviewees who are fighting to retain their connection to land and traditional culture, Miller portrays the detrimental effect white settlement has had on Indigenous Australians, not just historically, but in an ongoing sense as well. Much of this is portrayed through native title claims, such as that of Rose Chown in the wake of the Mabo decision. Mabo is portrayed as a watershed in Indigenous/Colonial relationships, and you should try to approach this text with some background knowledge of that case and what is has meant for Indigenous land claimants. It is a problematic decision for Indigenous people; it produces some obvious tangible benefits in the form of potentially successful historical claims to land, but it does mean accepting the rule of Colonial law in Australia. Moreover, the dispute between Rose Chown and Joyce Williams and her supporters reveals the way in which Colonial law fails to handle the complexities of Aboriginal connection to land and the historical displacement of Indigenous peoples.

Importantly, the differing opinions of Indigenous characters represents a wider theme in Miller’s story; that to belong to a group is not necessarily to conform to it. The disputes and differing stances of many of the interviewees is a reflection of a fact that is sometimes forgotten in Colonial history and conceptualisations; Indigenous culture and people are in no way homogenous. While the different characters would identify as Indigenous and recognise that they are linked by their shared history and culture, they do not share the same perspectives. Their sense of self and understanding of the world is not purely directed by the opinions of the group, but of many factors working together.